Thousands of international air crew have been allowed to catch Ubers to a hotel of their own choosing to quarantine in NSW, while airline staff flying into other states are treated the same as regular passengers.
Hundreds of foreign diplomats have also been given permission to skip hotel quarantine and self-isolate at home, despite two breaching the rules and nine testing positive to coronavirus.
It comes after bombshell revelations 13 airline crew members broke self-isolation, left their hotel and headed out for a night on the town after arriving in Sydney on December 5.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian revealed on Friday that a crew member attended several ‘venues’ after breaching isolation rules ‘a few weeks ago’.
Police went to the hotel and spoke with management before later fining 13 airline crew with $1000 infringement notices.
Epidemiologist and World Health Organisation adviser Professor Marylouise McLaws said current rules that allow airline crews to choose what hotels they isolate at are ‘absolutely not’ strict enough.
New South Wales has been allowing thousands of international flight attendants to choose which hotels they wanted to quarantine at
Acting Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said airline staff have been entering Australia and self-isolating since the beginning of the pandemic, with no ‘major issues’ until recently
‘We are talking about the safety of Australians. If anybody dies of this cluster, then you have to ask yourself, why have we allowed ourselves to be held at ransom by the airlines?’ she told The Daily Telegraph.
The publication also been revealed that about 900 foreign diplomats, who have entered Australia since international borders were closed in March, have been allowed to isolate at home.
Acting Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said airline staff have been entering Australia and self-isolating since the beginning of the pandemic, with no ‘major issues’ until recently.
‘Now, there have been a couple of cases recently where that hasn’t been the case, that has led to a discussion in the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee about strengthening those arrangements,’ Prof Kelly said.
Air staff landing in NSW have been treated to other benefits, such as being allowed to take taxis or Ubers from the airport as long as they ‘sit in the back seat’, wear a mask, and don’t stop anywhere on the way.
Other states impose stricter quarantining measures. International airline crew entering Western Australia are treated the same as passengers and must isolate in designated quarantine hotels.
South Australia and Tasmania also follow similar protocols to WA, but Victoria and Queensland have a similar system to NSW.
Ground zero: A party at Avalon RSL on Friday, December 11 has been linked to the virus outbreak on the northern beaches
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Friday announced a raft of changes to air crew quarantine, which will come into effect on Tuesday
Ms Berejiklian on Friday announced a raft of changes to air crew quarantine, which will come into effect on Tuesday.
Air staff will be forced into two designated quarantine hotels – rather than spread across ’25 to 26′ locations as they currently are.
Sydney’s northern beaches outbreak also prompted Queensland and Victoria to make changes to their hotel quarantine protocols for international air crew.
They will also begin the use of government-specified hotels with more security and COVID-19 testing from this week.
NSW recorded another 30 cases on Sunday, with 28 linked to the cluster on the northern beaches.
Although the 13 aircrew have not been connected to the cluster, the original source of the outbreak remains unknown.
Genomic testing has confirmed the COVID-19 strain is of American origin and likely entered the country from the United States.
The outbreak has also not been linked to a bus driver at Sydney Airport who tested positive earlier this week.
The driver, who takes international and domestic air crew from the airport to their hotels, lives in south-west Sydney – far from the northern beaches – and his close contacts are in isolation.
NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said there are no further cases associated with the van driver.
A quarantine worker at Sydney’s Novotel and Ibis hotels tested positive to the virus earlier this month – proving the system is not foolproof
Likewise, a bus driver who ferries international air crew to their hotels tested positive earlier in the week
On December 2, a cleaner at a quarantine hotel complex in Darling Harbour tested positive. She had worked across both the Ibis Hotel and the Novotel. The Novotel is a quarantine hotel. The cleaner had also regularly traveled on public transport from Minto – a 50km commute.
It’s clear the systems aren’t foolproof. Ms Berejiklian said the state still does not know how the virus broke out.
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an infectious diseases expert at the University of New South Wales, said the weak links in the system need to be addressed.
Professor McLaws said while the hotel system was an effective initial response to the crisis, it was no longer appropriate due to factors such as a lack of air flow and being in a built-up environment. She said they should be moved out of the city to isolated sites.
‘It’s passed its used-by date and it’s passed its useful date,’ she told Daily Mail Australia.